A rich Phoenix Democrat thinks he has picked the right political time to upset a respected Republican incumbent in the race for the U.S. Senate.
In what will likely be the campaign with the highest profile of the 2006 political season, former state Democratic Party chairman Jim Pederson kicks off his quest today in Casa Grande to unseat veteran Sen. Jon Kyl. Pederson is untested as a candidate at any level, but the shopping mall developer is expect to spend millions seeking to change the public’s perception of Kyl from one of Washington’s most influential, if somewhat bland, lawmakers.
And the race is widely seen as a bellwether of President Bush’s continuing — or, more recently, dwindling — popularity. Kyl is one of President Bush’s closest allies, and Pederson in hoping the president’s plummeting support in the polls will damage Kyl as well.
"Jim Pederson’s big task is to present himself as a viable alternative," said Barry Dill, a Phoenix-based Democratic political strategist.
Kyl has taken Pederson’s challenge seriously, getting an early jump on fundraising and announcing Tuesday that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will serve as his campaign chairman. But Kyl supporters say Pederson’s lack of experience in elected office means the race shouldn’t be close.
"Jim is a very bright guy and a very successful developer," said Jay Heiler, a Republican political consultant. "But what he knows about being a U.S. senator would not fill up one of his strip mall contracts."
Pederson has been preparing for this challenge for months. But he will formally launch his bid by returning to his roots in Casa Grande, where his father was the city manager for 25 years. After graduating from the University of Arizona, Pederson worked at Phoenix City Hall in 1967 and rose to administrative assistant to the mayor.
In 1970, he left the public sector and turned his attention to developing shopping centers, first with Westcor and then establishing his own company in 1983.
Pederson became the leader of Arizona Democrats in 2001, using his business skills and wealth to rebuild a flailing state party. His contributions played a key role in the 2002 victories of Gov. Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Terry Goddard because their own fundraising was strictly limited as publicly financed candidates.
Pederson decided to challenge Kyl in 2006 because no other prominent Democrat was willing to take the risk. He’s not expected to face any serious primary opposition.
Despite Kyl’s past strong election victories, various political polls show voters don’t know him nearly as well as they know McCain. Democrats have long believed a challenger with enough money to run an extensive television blitz could erase Kyl’s support.
"Kyl simply has nowhere to hide anymore," said Bob Grossfeld, a Scottsdale-based Democrat political strategist. "He has never been a standout, front-and-center, on-theradar political force. He has been fairly well able to hide who he is and what he is from the Arizona voters."
Pederson certainly brings the power of money to his campaign, with his past eagerness to spend his own wealth and his ability to call upon high-profile Democrats across the country for additional donations. That includes ties to Democratic stars such as Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, and national party chairman Howard Dean.
Kyl will try to use those connections against Pederson in a state where Republicans have the edge in voter registration.
"When you compare the two, it shows that Pederson is way to the (political) left of where mainstream Arizona is," said Jaime Molera, former state schools superintendent and a spokesman for the Kyl campaign.
Kyl always has been an effective fundraiser as well, with nearly $4 million already in the bank for the 2006 race. Some political observers say the two candidates could spend a combined $12 million to $15 million, the kind of money usually only seen with controversial ballot measures involving powerful economic interests.
"The Senate race, without a doubt, will dominate the paid portion of media next year," Dill said. "We just wonder if there’s going to be TV or radio time left for any of the rest of us."